Although she was born near the blues capital of the world and packed up her battered but beloved 1976 Guild guitar and moved to the country music capitol, Jessi Alexander's musical mind runs past the state and many other borders. Thus is the reason she mentions Son House, The Band and Patsy Cline in a single sentence.
"Growing up, I had such a wide range of influences," she says. "I remember thinking that Linda Rondstadt were country. So was Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs and Dolly Parton. I didn't have the same kind of boundaries you see in music today."
'Honeysuckle Sweet', Alexander's debut album set for release March 1, 2005 on Colombia, introduces an artist without boundaries, whose confidence in herself and her roots shines through in each cut.
Jessi grew up in west Tennessee, spending summers with her father in Memphis after her parents divorced when she was just a preschooler. She remembers walking along Beale Street before it was sanitized for tourists, stumbling over winos, seeing fights, and just taking in the scene and the music. Like many musicians, Jessi remembers the Christmas as a child that an acoustic guitar appeared under the tree. But she showed her stubborn streak early on by refusing to play it. You see, she wanted a bass, having heard one growl on a B.B. King record and asking her father for "that low thing."
"Other kids were into soccer and all I wanted to do was listen to these records. Having my dad's stack of records was a great starting point," she says.
So she listened and absorbed. The Band, Bob Wills, Karla Bonoff, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, Bobbi Gentry, Jackson Browne, Hank Williams and, always, Patsy Cline. In fact, when she realized, at age 10, that she could sing, it was Cline's vocals she tried to channel. So much so that young Jessi eventually had to work to stop sounding like Cline. That memory brings a laugh from Jessi.
"Then I started sounding too much like Bonnie Raitt. When I moved here, I really wanted to start to create Jessi."
She moved to Nashville after leaving Middle Tennessee State University, where she studied social work by day and played in bands by night. Instead of playing for tips in the bars along Broadway, she sought out musicians she could learn from, who could help her develop from bar singer to full-fledged artist.
That happened through songwriting, she says, and the results are evident in the 11 cuts of 'Honeysuckle Sweet,' each of which she at least co-wrote. Working with co-producer Gary Nicholson and writing with Nicholson, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Gary Louris (The Jayhawks) and Darrell Scott, among others, Jessi found her musical self. What comes through is a new voice, strong and proud, unafraid to tap into the best of the past while forging its own sound. Kind of what popular music used to be like before it was so strictly subdivided.
"I wanted this record to be very much a portrait of all my sides, all my influences. I wanted this to be a good template. This is Jessi. This is the platform on which I start," she says.
'Honeysuckle Sweet' might never have happened had it not been for some mischievous friends who submitted one of her tapes in a best unsigned artist contest in Nashville a few years ago. To her surprise, Jessi got a call saying she had made the second round of a contest she didn't even know she had entered.
Jessi not only won the contest, she attracted the interest of MCA, which signed her to make 'Honeysuckle Sweet.' Mergers and regime changes are the norm, and Jessi now finds herself releasing "Honeysuckle Sweet" for Columbia.
"I think more than anything, this is the first chapter of a long history. I think success would be to know the songs have touched someone because they've been living in me for so long. Some are four, even six years old. To know the transfer has happened - that I've written songs and someone has heard them. That's success."
By that measure, Jessi is already a success. She spent some time as a Warner-Chappell music writer, and Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless and others on country's A-List have recorded her songs.
And there's one more measure of success she's looking forward to. "I hope some day some little girl goes, 'I want to sing like Jessi.' How cool would that be?"
Cool indeed. And with the release of the sparkling 'Honeysuckle Sweet,' probably not too far off in the future.
Personal Reflections on the Songs . . .
"Honeysuckle Sweet" (Jessi Alexander, Sally Barris) - I started this song with the title Honeysuckle Sweet, the two words I could find to describe my summers as a child on the Tennessee River. I closed my eyes and had a stream of visions: catching catfish, sunburned from head to toe, playing my daddy's records so loud you could probably hear it down the river, and laying under the stars at night wishing I could grow up faster. I wanted people to see where I come from... and why when I fly over Tennessee my heart sings.
"Make Me Stay Or Make Me Go" (Jessi Alexander, Gary Nicholson, Al Anderson) - Another typical day writing with Gary Nicholson and Al Anderson: Al brought the infectious groove, Gary put the words in just the right places. I tried to continually think..."How would Trisha sing this?" I might have also offered a little insight on the message of the song. The endless struggle most of us have felt at one time or another. LOVE me or LEAVE me!!!
"This World Is Crazy" (Jessi Alexander, Gary Nicholson, Gary Louris) - The day after the Columbine High school shooting, my co-writers and I sat down to write a song. As soon as the words "this world is crazy" were uttered, a stream of emotion began to pour out from all of us. I guess it's a writer's gift that we have an outlet to express our deep sadness, we had no idea how the song would apply in the coming year.
"I'd Run Right Back To You" (Jessi Alexander) - Driving down the road one day, this melody started singing in my head, along with the words "baby I'd run right back to you." I remember thinking, all of us have that one person in our past who is so bad for us, but deep down we know that if they said the word, we'd go right back to them, regardless of the danger. I know I have that person!
"Unfulfilled" (Jessi Alexander, Austin Cunningham) - Austin Cunningham and I wrote this when I first moved to Nashville. I would say most of my songs stem from the character in this song. A hardworking woman, a mother, and a wife, doing the best she can with what life has given her. Maybe she represents the women in my family, or possibly even a deep part of myself. Nevertheless, I wanted to capture her struggle and her desperation. Hopefully there are others that find comfort in her pain
"Holding Back Your Love" (Jessi Alexander , Sally Barris) - Sally Barris and I took a writing trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama. We started each day by walking along the beach just talking, and that's where the song title emerged. We hurried back to the hotel and wrote long into the night. We both wanted to give a tip of the hat to Fleetwood Mac in melody and groove. The guys really nailed it in the studio.
"Make It Feel Right" (Jessi Alexander, Gary Nicholson, John Scott Sherrill) - Yeah... we all know the girl in this song, There's one in every town, at every bar... she's painfully beautiful, and she knows it! However, she's so lonely, because she always wants what she can't have... and typically winds up alone. I ran into her one night, and was moved to write a song about her.
"Everywhere" (Jessi Alexander, Benmont Tench) - Benmont Tench (plays piano for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and I sat down to write for the first time, and he almost immediately started playing the chords on the piano. I guess it was waiting there for us. This song has come to mean so many things for me over the years. The heartbreak of our nation, the cry of a lover, and the loss of a parent. Nonetheless, it breaks my heart every time I sing it.
"Reasons To Run" (Jessi Alexander, Gary Nicholson)- Gary Nicholson and I stumbled on to this melody late one night. We were like two little kids with a new toy, grinning from ear to ear. It's infectious and soothing. We loved it so much, it was hard to write words that were equally as good. I don't write many "happy" love songs, but this is close as I've ever gotten. I wanted it to sound like an old JJ Cale song, something you could just lay back and enjoy.
"The Long Way" (Jessi Alexander, Darrell Scott, Gary Nicholson) - The first line came to me one night out of nowhere. I had this image of a girl on the back of a '56 Chevy pickup parked by a river bank. As I started to closely observe the snapshot I realized it was me! 16 years old, restless and bored. Then I thought, "man, that was a life time away!" I guess it's kind of the sequel to "Honeysuckle Sweet," tracing my steps that got me where I am today.
"The Canyon Prayer (Till I turn to You)" (Jessi Alexander, Gary Nicholson) - My best friend Marie and I were driving cross-country and decided to stop at the Grand Canyon. We each found our own perch overlooking the beauty, and I started to write in my journal. I wrote at the top of the page "The Canyon Prayer" and then began to pour out my 19-year-old frustrations. Years later, I found that journal, and remembered the prayer. I called Gary Nicholson, and he helped me shape the words and find the perfect melody. We both felt the power of this song as we were writing it. We knew it was bigger that the two of us. I swear this song evolves and affects me differently every time I sing it. I felt there was no better way to end my record.